Southeast Asia

Religious leaders take over peace campaign
By Richel Langit

JAKARTA - Leaders of Indonesia's five officially recognized religions have taken over the country's peace campaigns after the administration of President Megawati Sukarnoputri appeared reluctant to condemn the planned attack on Iraq by the United States and its allies.

Worried by a possible hostile response to the US plan to disarm Iraqi President Saddam Hussein of weapons of mass destruction, these religious leaders embarked on an international campaign against what they and many other Indonesians see as US hegemony over the world. They sent delegations to Australia and some European countries, including the Vatican, with the message that a war against Iraq was not only unwarranted but also could trigger radicalism among Muslim communities throughout the world.
In Australia they met with a number of lawmakers to convey their opposition to the planned war. They also urged the Australian lawmakers to foil Prime Minister John Howard's plan to send Australian troops to Iraq. In Europe they met with a number of heads of state, including Pope John Paul II, during which they told their hosts that disarming Iraq by force was not in the interest of the international community. They intentionally skipped the United States, as they considered its government to be arrogant and intent on attacking Iraq.

At home, the same religious leaders regularly issue statements and hold news conferences, informing the public at large that any US attack on Iraq has nothing to do with religion, and that Iraq's weapons of mass destruction do have to be destroyed, but not by way of a unilateral attack. They also stressed that they were not against US citizens but the United States' foreign policies, which they consider to be discriminatory.

These religious leaders might not be able to prevent the United States and its staunchest allies from attacking Iraq, as they continue to amass troops in the Middle East, but they have clearly succeeded in convincing the Indonesian public that the planned war against Iraq has nothing to do with religion. Such a clear distinction is of paramount importance in Indonesia, where Christians are sometimes considered by Muslims to be agents of the West. By successfully distancing Christianity from the planned attack on Iraq, the religious leaders have averted possible conflicts between Muslims, who account for 85 percent of the country's 220 million people, and Christians, who account for slightly over 10 percent of the population.

The same religious leaders have clearly succeeded, at least for the time being, in suppressing attempts by some militant Muslim groups in the country to turn the Iraqi war into a religious issue, a move that would not only plunge Indonesia into another round of religious conflict but also would also threaten the country's national unity.

Anti-US protests do happen sporadically throughout the world's biggest Muslim country, some of them organized by militant Muslim groups, but the issue they press is no longer a clash between the West or Christianity and the East or Islam but humanism. In most cases, Muslims and Christians are joining hands in organizing anti-US protests, something that never took place when Indonesian Muslims organized street rallies after United States started bombing Afghanistan.

The US and its allies are mostly likely to attack Iraq, but so far Indonesian intelligence officials say they have detected no signs that the attack would trigger massive protests against the West, let alone degenerate into religious conflicts.

When the US started bombing Afghanistan in late 2001, most Muslim leaders here believed that it was justified in view of terrorist attacks in Washington and New York in September that year, which the US government blamed on Muslim cleric Osama bin Laden and his international terrorist network, al-Qaeda. But even so, some militant Muslim groups in Indonesia staged protests almost daily in front of the US Embassy and those of its allies in Jakarta and their missions in other big cities. Some even went as far as launching anti-US sweeps in Muslim-stronghold areas such as Solo in Central Java and Makassar in South Sulawesi. The sweeps forced some foreign companies and schools to halt operations. More than that, the sweeps raised security fears among foreign investors and kept much-needed foreign capital at bay.

This time around Indonesian religious leaders believe that the US and its allies have no solid ground to attack Iraq. They are worried that an attack on Iraq would trigger religious conflicts.

And their fears are justified. Detained suspects in the Bali bombings, which killed at least 202 people and injured more than 350 others, told police investigators that they engaged in such a bloody jihad as a protest against US policies in dealing with Palestine and Afghanistan. Some of the suspects had in one way or another participated in prolonged religious conflicts in Ambon and Poso in Central Sulawesi. More than 10,000 innocent lives have been lost in the two areas since the conflicts started in January 1999.

For many Indonesians, the peace campaigns of these religious leaders have compensated for the government's reluctance to condemn the planned attack on Iraq. Megawati feels that she cannot condemn the United States publicly as it may hurt bilateral relations and could prompt the US to stop giving financial assistance needed to revive Indonesia's economy. The Megawati government is also afraid that condemning the US publicly would fan anti-US protests.

Clearly, the religious leaders' campaign has averted, at least until now, possible religious conflicts in Indonesia and strengthened solidarity among the five religions officially recognized by the constitution: Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, and Hinduism.

The religious leaders' success has prompted some political parties, including Megawati's Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-Perjuangan) and Golkar, to list two of the leaders, namely Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) chairman Hasyim Mushadi and Muhammadiyah chairman Syafii Maarif, as potential candidates in the upcoming general election scheduled to take place between June and August 2004.

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Mar 15, 2003

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